Research in Fiction – re-discovering the miners’ strike. Guest Post from Laura Wilkinson, author of Public Battles, Private Wars
I’m delighted to be handing my blog over today to a gifted novelist whose latest novel shines a torch on women who were part of the miners’ strike in 1984
Bridget’s invited me over to her wonderful blog to talk about research in fiction. Like a lot of writers I’m neither a fully-paid-up member of the planner nor panster clubs; I fall somewhere in between.
I begin any story with a clear(ish) vision of the story arc, with a beginning and a sense of where I’d like my characters to end up. Research is done on the hoof, as and when I feel the need. Lazy? Maybe. But it works for me and research can become a distraction, something which gets in the way of writing. A master of displacement activity, I had to remind myself of this constantly while working on my latest novel, for there is stacks of information on the subject.
My latest novel, Public Battles, Private Wars, is set against the backdrop of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike and there is a wealth of writing on the subject, though surprisingly little fiction (I found only three novels) and genuine poverty when it comes to fictional representations of women’s role in the struggle.
The origins of my novel lie in a photograph I came across on the internet while researching another story idea set in the 80s: an image of a group of women marching down a suburban street; women who looked powerful, in control, purposeful; not hapless victims of a political struggle to smash the unions led by a woman in Westminster.
I am old enough to recall this landmark strike in modern history and as a former steel worker’s daughter I have some understanding of strife and hardship as a result of strike and redundancy (Thatcher crushed the steel industry before turning on coal), but I’m not from a mining community, I wasn’t a political animal as a girl, though my mother and sister were. If I was to do the story, and the real women of the conflict, justice, I needed to do some research.
Because I find images inspirational, I began by looking at photographs from the era and the women’s groups that sprang up to rally round the miners. Images of women, young and old, huddled over industrial sized cookers, preparing meals for pickets and hungry children. Women in town halls cheering on the likes of Tony Benn (RIP), Arthur Scargill and Bruce Kent. Women marching next to their men, shoulder to shoulder on the picket lines. Women shielding their faces from oncoming policemen on horseback. Shocking images.
Then I began to read, to gather the facts. I read lots of books, articles, diaries and accounts. I spoke to people – experts and those who lived through it – about the profound effects that long, hard year had on their lives. It was a terrible time, no mistaking. There was extreme hardship and, ultimately, defeat. But, out of those desperate times came some good. Quite a lot for many women, as it happens.
Alongside specific fact gathering about the strike, I imbued myself with a sense of the period – fashion, music, popular books, TV shows, the mores of the time. I looked at clips on YouTube and watched films like Billy Eliot and This is England. My central character likes to bake cakes. I am a domestic disaster, with a particular talent for spoiling even the most straightforward of dishes. I read up on baking and even tried some recipes – with laughable results.
There is another strand in Public Battles, Private Wars, that required research, and I have to be careful how much I say because of spoilers, but my leading man is a former soldier who served during the Falklands War. Ignorant in the extreme about military matters, I needed to look into this too if this particular plot strand was to feel authentic and my character be three dimensional. Again, I read articles and reports online, and I spoke with a number of particularly lovely officers at the MOD. Special mention has to go to a former soldier, John Marham, who now works for a military charity who gave up a morning to meet with me and talk about his experiences of army life. He was generous with his knowledge and personal stories, talking me through everything from training to the sound a magazine makes when loaded into the gun barrel.
Now, I can’t recall how much time I spent researching. Probably not as long as I’ve made it sound. I was greedy for the information – it was fascinating – and so I devoured it quickly. The novel took a year to write – the same timescale as the strike – and once I had all this information rammed into my brain, I had to forget most of it. For here’s the thing: in fiction, you must wear your research lightly. It must never feel didactic, it must never get in the way of the story or the characters, and this felt especially important to me given that there is a wealth of non-fiction. If people want facts there are gazillions of sources. If you want to live the life vicarious of a downtrodden young women who finds the best of herself during strange and difficult times then this novel might be for you.
Public Battles, Private Wars was published by Accent Press on 27 March.
Miner’s wife Mandy is stuck in a rut. Her future looks set and she wants more. But Mandy can’t do anything other than bake and raise her four children. Husband Rob is a good looking drinker, content to spend his days in the small town where they live.
When a childhood friend – beautiful, clever Ruth – and her Falklands war hero husband, Dan, return to town, their homecoming is shrouded in mystery. Mandy looks to Ruth for inspiration, but Ruth isn’t all she appears.
Conflict with the Coal Board turns into war and the men come out on strike. The community and its way of life is threatened. Mandy abandons dreams of liberation from the kitchen sink and joins a support group. As the strike rumbles on relationships are pushed to the brink, and Mandy finds out who her true friends are.
I was interested to learn how Laura tackled the research for her novel. I love the fact that even though she remembered the 1980s she took nothing for granted, not even the food. But perhaps her most telling comment, and the most useful to other writers, is when she says once she had acquired a mountain of information, she had to forget most of it. I’ve heard Rose Tremain say the same thing. Immerse yourself in research and then allow what sticks to stick. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to write about – wear your learning lightly.
Thank you Laura for a fantastic post. Public Battles, Private Wars is available from good bookshops and online from the publisher and Amazon